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COVID-19 fails to cough up disaster cooperation in Northeast Asia

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A woman gets tested for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a nucleic acid testing site, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Shanghai, China, 21 September 2022 (Reuters/Aly Song).

In Brief

In 1999, amid ASEAN-related meetings in Manila, then Chinese premier Zhu Rongji, Japanese prime minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean president Kim Dae-jung held their first meeting. When the three countries' leaders formally met in 2008, seven months after the Sichuan earthquake, they agreed to cooperate on disaster management and hold trilateral foreign ministers’ meetings with a rotating chair.


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In 2011 — just months after Japan was hit by an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster — Chinese, Japanese and South Korean (CJK) representatives met in Tokyo. At this meeting, they agreed on the Cooperation on Disaster Management framework to support the quick dispatch of disaster relief teams and supplies on request and to send a CJK expert team on-site to examine disaster-hit areas.

CJK heads of government broached trilateral cooperation in other forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and ASEAN+3. They also held joint relief exercises in cooperation with ASEAN and disaster simulations with the United Nations. Other initiatives such as ‘designating 24-hour contact points for disseminating information’, boosting collaboration to create ‘networks to quickly confirm the safety of nationals’ and using ‘geospatial information for disaster management’ were mentioned in passing.

Collective shocks in the form of natural disasters prompt expectations for public unification in the face of a perceived threat. Yet CJK trilateral disaster management collaboration was absent at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and only resumed in earnest in 2022.

A simple explanation could lie in the framing of the COVID-19 emergency. ASEAN members framed the pandemic as a healthcare crisis rather than a disaster due to a lack of credible information. That much is clear from their initial and later discussions with CJK on the issue. The ASEAN+3 format has long been the only way CJK representatives could meet trilaterally, so ASEAN-centred initiatives might have shaped how China, South Korea and Japan initially responded to the pandemic.

But the COVID-19 pandemic fits the UN definition of a disaster as ‘a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society’. Perhaps this is why South Korea, Japan and China’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic exhibited elements of disaster management, even if they differed significantly.

China took a ‘whole of government’ approach guided by the Chinese Emergency Response Law and several health-related laws and regulations. South Korea’s emergency response system and its mechanism for financial assistance to severely hit ‘special disaster’ regions were underpinned by the Framework Act on the Management of Disasters and Safety. Japanese officials chose to combat the pandemic primarily as a health emergency.

A general silence on trilateral disaster management during the pandemic might be explained by a lack of real-life CJK disaster management experience. But CJK representatives have participated biannually in on-site ASEAN Regional Forum Disaster Relief Exercises since CJK heads of state first touched on disaster management on the sidelines of the ASEAN+3 meeting in 2003.

The exercises ran from 2009 to 2015. A regular CJK table-top exercise mechanism also sprung up, running from 2013 to 2016. These simulations were among the many initiatives from the agreed-on Cooperation on Disaster Management framework. This framework now guides other inconsistent CJK mechanisms, such as ministerial, director-general and working-level meetings.

Another contributing factor to the inertia in trilateral engagement is the antagonism in bilateral relations between Japan, South Korea and China. Bilateral tourism flows between the countries have decreased due to the Japan–ROK trade dispute, China–Japan distrust owing to militarisation and the China–ROK row over the proposed THAAD missile defence system deployment.

These problems temporarily froze CJK leaders’ meetings in 2012–2014 and 2016–2017, so they might explain the pronounced pause in CJK collaboration on disaster management. Indeed, many of these issues were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. But that would be at odds with ongoing bilateral CJK cooperation in the form of bilateral projects.

Chinese and South Korean businesspeople started to use a fast-track procedure to operate in selected parts of the ROK and China after a simple health check in April 2020. China also helped facilitate the rescue of Japanese and ROK nationals from Wuhan city during the 2020 lockdown and received humanitarian aid from Japan and ROK. Japan, for its part, accommodated Chinese– and ROK-led efforts to rescue those trapped on the quarantined Diamond Princess liner in Yokohama in February 2020.

Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic was not disastrous enough to catalyse trilateral disaster cooperation. But the continuation of bilateral assistance and disaster relief projects show that simple explanations do not capture the complexity of cooperation between China, Japan and South Korea.

Marat Galimov recently graduated from a Masters in Socioeconomic and Political Development of Modern Asia at the National Research University Higher School of Economics.

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